Fujiyoshida Fire Festival; past articles.

The Fujiyoshida Fire Festival --by Chris Roeske

Summer is a peculiar time in the five lakes region; when the heat and humidity become almost unbearable and a hot bowl of udon loses its appeal. Luckily, and just before we reach our boiling point, we are blessed with such luxuries as cold udon to eat and cold lakes to jump into. Certain smells seem to hang in the wet air, like the sweet sauce of yakitori on the grill or the vinegar and ginger smell of yakisoba on the griddle. If you are in Fujiyoshida during the end of August, you can add to that list the smoky smell of the Fire Festival; the smell of the city literally going "up in flames".

"The Fire Festival" refers to the two days of activity that surround the ending of the Japanese Summer. The first day, August 26th, marks the end of Mt. Fuji's official climbing season. August 27th is the day of the "Susuki Festival", which uses the "susuki" grass to symbolize the beginning of autumn. Both of these days include activities at Fujiyoshida's main Shinto shrine, called "Fuji Sengen Jinja", located on highway 138 in Kamiyoshida. The whole event is not only impressive, but also totally free; everyone is welcome to participate and if you look like a foreigner you will probably end up on the local television channel.


Day One: Joyful Descent into the Inferno
On August 26th Fuji Sengen Shrine is a veritable hive of excitement. To enjoy the spectacle, one should arrive around 3:00, as the ceremony begins at 3:30. Mixed into one big crowd you will see priests and priestesses, firemen, pilgrims, warlocks, foreigners, and photographers with lenses that could capture the lunar explorer. You will also notice crowds of unruly looking men in short, decorative summer coats called "hanten". These are the men who will perform the most notable of the day's tasks, which requires some explanation, so please allow me to explain.

Somewhere inside the shrine there lives a great goddess, by the name of Kono-hana-saku-ya-hime. She is the symbol of fire safety and safe child birth. She is the patron deity of firemen, midwives, and, most importantly, she is the goddess of Mt. Fuji. The priests have a special carriage for the goddess: a beautiful, hand made portable shrine, called an "omikoshi". The groups of unruly men in their hanten are the brigades that will carry the "omikoshi" from Fuji Sengen Jinja out into the streets of Fujiyoshida. As the "omikoshi" is said to weigh over 2000 pounds, these men are usually getting numbed up with sake, and smoking lots of tobacco

The goddess, in her carriage, is carried into the streets, followed by an "omikoshi" made to look like an orange Mt. Fuji, and two "mini-mikoshi" being supported by children. This unlikely, semi-hazardous parade takes the goddess down Honcho-street, and ends at the Kamiyoshida Community Center. As the goddess travels, she looks out to see Honcho-street lined with people, food vendors, and dozens of 9 foot tall wooden structures that look like elongated ice-cream cones. Once these and many smaller fires are lit, the sight of the flaming city will so impress the goddess that she will be satisfied to contain the eruption of Mt. Fuji for one more year. We hope. In the meantime, the revelers at the Fujiyoshida Fire Festival are free to eat squid on a stick, drink cold beer, and dance around in the smoke, sparks, and falling ash.

Day Two: The Goddess Returns Amidst the Rustle of Autumn Grass. On August 27th, the city awakes to find that autumn has begun, and that the smoke-tinged air seems slightly cooler. Residents inspect their clothes for burn marks, remove shoes made of grass from tired feet, and turn their attention towards Fuji-san, which will be as dormant as ever. We hope. The goddess, however, wakes up in a new place, a concrete community center, and must be returned.

Later in the day, the men in "hanten" return to finish the job, following a most circuitous route through town and then into the forest before arriving back at Fuji Sengen Jinja. They will arrive after dark to a decidedly smaller, calmer crowd of local people. Most will be clutching a long reed of "susuki", an autumn grass. When the Goddess returns, she will be joined by the crowd for a trip around and around a stand of trees. A kind of chase ensues, with people chasing the "omikoshi", which is in turn chasing the people before it. Men run and laugh. Children squeal, and run away. This comparatively subtle affair, called the "Susuki Festival", is quite exciting and enjoyable. Gone are the tourist crowds and unbearable heat, and all that remain are the good spirits of the shrine, and the hopes that autumn will bring a bountiful harvest and a marked improvement in the weather.


Myojin Mikoshi is paraded through the streets.


Fire Festival--by Philip Cummings

The Yoshida Fire Festival, or HIi Matsuri, is the city's most well-known event. Rather than one event, it is actually divided into two connected festivals, each with their own day. The first day is the most famous and impressive visually, while the second has its own excitement and religious significance.

The beginnings of the Fire Festival are shrouded in mystery, but there are documents referring to the repair of the Oyama-san (cf. below) in the Genroku Period (1688-1704) and permits for the bonfires from even farther back, in the Warring States Period of the 1500's. Suwa Jinja, a shrine whithin the Fuji Sengen Jinja complex, was very influential hundreds of years ago and used to host the event for the old village of Kamiyoshida. Now Sengen overshadows it in importance and serves as "sponsor" for the overall festival.

It is probably no coincidence that the festival is held in the same season as the Buddhist festival of the dead, Obon, where fires are lit to welcome back and again send off the souls of the deceased. Fire in the Japanese mythos is symbolic of purity and cleanliness, a symbol found in the Hi Matsuri. For example, people with a death in the family since the last Fire Festival are prohibited from watching the bonfire flames. Even today, such families often leave the city during the festival in a practice called tema ni deru. In the past, the Fire Festival may have been practiced in the Five Lakes Area in place of Obon.


The crowds gather to watch the Taimatsu Torches burn.

Bonfires (Taimatsu)
These stacks of bound firewood measure close to a meter in diameter at the base and stand three meters tall. They line the streets from Fuji Sengen Jinja to below the Kanadorii gate on Honcho-dori, one of the main streets of the city. Once they are lit, the street turns into a sea of fire. Care must be taken to avoid the burning embers.

Portable Shrines (Mikoshi)
Along with the bonfires, these two behemoths are the stars of the festival. The older mikoshi, called Myojin-san, is in the traditional style but the other one, the Oyama-san, is shaped like Mt. Fuji. Both weigh approximately one ton and are carried on the shoulders of some fifty bearers.

One-ton Oyamasa-san being carried.

Day 1: August 26
Fire Extinguishing Festival (Chinkasai)
3:30 pm: Ceremony at Sengen Jinja to prepare the mikoshi
5:00 pm: Mikoshi depart Fuji Sengen Jinja
6:30 pm: Mikoshi arrive at Kamiyoshida Community Center
6:40 pm: Bonfires from the Shrine to the Center are lit; Mukai Kagura dances at the Center, food stalls open along Honcho-dori

Day 2:August 27
Pampas Grass Festival (Susuki Matsuri)
2-3:00 pm: Mikoshi depart Kamiyoshida Community Center
6:30-7:00 pm: Mikoshi arrive at Mikuraishi; circle 3,5, or 7 times in front of Suwa Jinja; festival climax.